Tag Archives: parliament


Why I’ll be voting “remain”

I decided a few weeks ago to break my blogging silence in the run up to the referendum, and the events of yesterday have somewhat concentrated my mind. I had imagined this article would be a magnificent rant about the lies and hate-mongering of the Leave campaign, but as I come to write this, I’ve found myself rather angered out.

Like many people with a history working in politics, Jo Cox’s murder feels close to home. I was working in Lib Dem HQ in 2000 when Cllr Andrew Pennington was killed by a constituent in Nigel Jones MP’s constituency office. I’ve worked the political beat in West Yorkshire. I campaigned for one of my friends, also called Jo, who also went on to represent the community she grew up in in Parliament. So yeah, despite having walked away from party politics, there are plenty of parallels in my own life to have given me pause for thought over the last 24 hours.

The referendum itself has become an undignified, ghastly mess. As a survivor of a previous referendum campaign, this of course has not surprised me one bit. What has surprised me rather more by how, as we near the finish line, I’ve found myself feeling quite as strongly as I did.

Twelve, even six months ago, I was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the EU. The way Greece has been treated, essentially as the sin eater for Eurozone’s shortcomings, has been appalling. The refugee crisis has been met with moral cowardice and indifference. Regardless of the TTIP’s merits or flaws (I’m genuinely on the fence), its secrecy has been, to say the least, undignified. For quite a while now, it hasn’t felt like the EU I felt proud to be a member of at the turn of the millennium.

The one thing I can say about this referendum is that it has clarified my thinking on that. Because the question arises, again and again, what the alternative is. I’ve heard countless people talk about how the EU is “undemocratic” – and yet not a single supporter of leaving the EU seems interested in a system that would be more democratic.

I can think of a number of ways in which the EU could be made more democratic. Opening up Council meetings, for example; there’s even a debate to be had over directly electing the Commission president (regardless of the pros and cons of that particular one, I doubt Jean-Claude Juncker would have had an easy time winning a popular vote). None of them whatsoever involve negotiating EU legislation in the same way that we negotiate bilateral treaties – entirely in the hands of the executive, with most of the work and negotiating done by civil servants entirely behind closed doors.

If we’re serious about improving the democratic scrutiny of EU legislation however, the most crucial place to start is home. Why, for example, are the committees which do the lion’s share of scrutiny of draft EU legislation, seated in the entirely unelected House of Lords? Why doesn’t our parliament scrutinise legislation as closely as so many other countries take for granted, particularly Nordic countries such as Denmark? In turn, if Parliament really wanted to give people more say, there are plenty of models it could adopt. None of these reforms would require agreement in Brussels – we could adopt them tomorrow if there was the political will.

If the EU ceased to exist tomorrow, the need for it would continue. We need trans-national agreements on standards; you might bristle about having to meet EU standards, but believe me you would bristle a lot more if you had to comply with 27 national ones. We need trans-national agreements on social and employment rights, because otherwise employers will face a Dutch auction, with the companies with the worst records in looking after their employees free to price out those with the best. And yes, all too often the EU, far from being an exemplar of free and open trade, is a cosy club of wealthy nations. But scrapping an organisation with protectionist tendencies with a free-for-all in which nation states will be under even greater pressure to roll up the drawbridge, isn’t going to solve that.

Most of the EU’s failings can be put down to narrow national self-interest, something which the EU exists to mitigate. You don’t solve that problem by embracing narrow national self-interest; I’d have thought that was self-evident. I’m actually not convinced that its main problems are institutional; predominantly, they’re cultural. “Europe lacks a demos,” by which is meant a sense of common identity and purpose amongst the people, has become a cliché, but it is nonetheless true and I can’t see an easy solution. Put simply, the vast majority of people just don’t feel a sense of ownership of the European institutions, let alone control. People struggle to name their MEPs and our media does little to report their work. As such, we have a set of actually quite open and democratic bodies which effectively operate in secret because so few people are actually paying attention.

It gets worse though. I think you could equally argue that local government largely lacks a “demos”. It is increasingly becoming true of national parliaments as well. Since 2009 and the expenses scandal, closely followed by the coalition government’s utterly failed programme of reform, the feeling that Westminster is unreformable and irrelevant seems to have set in. Increasingly, political outsiders are being invoked to ride in and solve all our problems, regardless of how unrealistic and futile their positions are. And it’s a global phenomenon: for every Nigel Farage, there’s a Donald Trump; for every Jeremy Corbyn there’s a Bernie Sanders.

What I’m getting round to saying here is that the problem with the EU is not rooted in the fact that we look to our cosy nation-states to represent us and solve our problems, but that democracy itself is in crisis because it is reliant on a sense of identity and common cause that we are losing rapidly. It’s a loss the left is struggling with more than the right, but even though the right is finding itself the beneficiary, it is becoming something shrill and even more incapable of providing reforms that don’t simply make things worse. Moderates who indulge their right flanks are being replaced by demagogic parodies of the politicians they have supplanted.

Not even countries with the best democratic systems are proving immune to this problem, which is fundamentally technological at root and thus irreversible (unless you consider nuclear apocalypse to be an option). Our problems are increasingly global ones. Our communities are too, even if they’ve become narrower. Walking away from the EU won’t stop that; it will just make our problems harder to solve.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of migration. Economically, we have benefited hugely from immigration and we simply can’t control our borders without international cooperation. There simply is no drawbridge to pull up. Where there is a clear failure in our immigration policy, it is our national failure to ensure that the wider public see those benefits – especially in the case of providing decent social housing for all.

The refugee crisis isn’t going to magically go away if we decide the leave the EU. The tight border controls at Calais aren’t magically going to be made impermeable if we go – and does anyone seriously believe that the price of French cooperation in that regard is not going to go up if we do? Laughably, the Leave campaign’s solution is a “points-based” system along the lines of Australia – a country with a higher number of immigrants per head of population than we do; and while they’re busy plastering brown faces on their billboards with an explicit aim to scare white people, they’re quietly telling Asian voters that they’d make it easier for their relatives to come to the UK.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more disreputable political enterprise in the UK, with the stakes as high as they are, yet it plugs into people’s fears and has proven effective. And does anyone seriously doubt that if they get their way on the 23rd, public dissatisfaction about immigration will get anything but worse?

I have no idea what the solution to any of this is. What I do know is that things will go downhill, much more quickly, if we vote to leave next Thursday. What I do know is that the EU, already under pressure as people across Europe increasingly vote for insular and and xenophobic parties, will struggle even more. And I know that those self-same xenophobes, whether they wrap themselves in Nazi flags or claim to be insulted at the suggestion that they have anything in common with fascists, will only lead us to more violence, death and bloodshed. Not a single one of these problems will go away if the UK votes to remain, but we might just get a little bit more time to breathe and come up with something that might work. And I can’t believe that close pan-European economic, political and social cooperation won’t be part of that solution.

Norman Baker performing Piccadilly Circus

Norman Baker, political journalism and hinterlands

It’s an odd evening to defend the MP for Lewes, given that his constituents are currently behaving like a bunch of spoiled children blacking up and attempting to set fire to “politically incorrect” effigies. Nonetheless, I share a lot of the views expressed elsewhere that he performed an excellent service in his role as Home Office minister and can well understand his reasons for resigning.

This blog post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of his resignation though. Rather, it’s a simple observation. Most of the media coverage was transfixed by the idea that Norman Baker was in a band, that it isn’t a wildly good one, and that these facts alone are wildly hilarious. Every TV and newspaper report I came across seemed to fit in a quip about it somewhere

I suspect that it doesn’t especially matter that his interests are in music. In fact, the Reform Club’s middle of the road style from what I can make out is pretty inoffensive to anyone. What seemed to provoke the lobby was that he was doing something – anything – that was slightly out of the ordinary.

When that slightly out of the ordinary thing is practicing music skills on a regular basis, you’ve got to wonder how they’d treat any MP who has personal interests that are really unusual.

Several years ago, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at a games club playing a game of Puerto Rico with a Labour MP, at the time a Parliamentary Private Secretary. After the game, we looked over our shoulders to see another group having a raucous game of Cash’n’Guns. He observed “I have to be really cautious about what games I can play in public” at which point I pointed out, to his horror, that he’d just spent the last couple of hours playing a game about the slave trade.

I mention this because he’s right: playing a game in which you wave foam guns in each other’s faces would potentially be career suicide for an aspiring politician, no matter how silly a game it is (which is certainly the case of Cash’n’Guns). But the reason isn’t because doing so would be wrong or wicked in any way, but because it would be seen as weird. And being weird, as Ed Miliband has learned to his cost, is an almost unforgivable crime in modern politics.

The result is, paradoxically, that all our politicians are deeply weird. It’s been almost 40 years since Denis Healey scathingly noted that Margaret Thatcher lacked a hinterland. These days almost none of them have one. William Hague is allowed to write books, albeit on political history. Beer and football are permitted interests, as is primetime television (in moderation). But anything else is treated as shameful and hidden from view, a bit like being gay in the 1950s.

But the weirdest thing about all this is that at the same time, being “wacky” is increasingly the norm for how political journalism is conducted. The model established by Andrew Neil on This Week and the Daily Politics, has now become ubiquitous. Politics is now typically presented on television by people who can’t wait to dress up in silly costumes or wear outrageous hats to make some leaden point or other. Newspaper journalists all seem to consider themselves to be side-splittingly hilarious comedians if my twitter feed is anything to go by. Norman Baker’s crime seems to have been to be sincere in his interests. If he’d done an appallingly awful duet with the chief correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and not even worthy of mention.

We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.

Labour and Lords Reform – a short history lesson

Steve Bell cartoon on Lords reform

Labour has announced that it would replace the House of Lords with an elected senate. There are reasons why supporters of Lords reform should be cautious about celebrating too hard about this, as Labour’s promises in this area have failed to blossom into meaningful action so many times in the past. But it is progress – a fully elected senate and no caveats about needing a referendum first – and it is something to hold them too if they win the next election.

The Liberal Democrat response has been curious and revealing. Speaking on their behalf, Sir Malcolm Bruce said:

“We could have given the UK greater representation in parliament, but when presented with the chance, he bottled it; turned his back and ran. This is simply lip-service from a Labour party who have no intention of actually delivering.”

You would think that the Lib Dems would be a bit more cautious about labelling others as dishonest, given the hole that they’re in. Leaving that aside, it is simply not true to say that the reason Lords reform fell in 2012 was because Labour walked away. They were no angels, but to pin the blame on them is to ignore Tory treachery, different Liberal Democrat priorities.

Talk to a Lib Dem MP between May 2010 and September 2012 for more than five minutes and it will be perfectly clear what their main preoccupation was: boundary changes. Seriously, I personally spoke to around a dozen of them in that period and that’s all they ever wanted to talk about. As the boundary changes were published, it increasingly dawned on them that they had signed a suicide note by agreeing to the boundary changes and a reduction in the number of MPs, and they were fixated by how they might be able to break that promise. Everything they did during that period was going through that lens.

Thus is was that as soon as the Lords reform proposals were published, the Lib Dems started threatening to block the boundary changes if the Tories failed to fulfil their promise on Lords reform. From the point of view of actually replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, this was disastrous. Tory backbenchers don’t respond well to threats, especially from junior partners they are determined to squash, and the message Labour were getting was that if they helped scupper Lords reform, they would be freed from boundary changes as well.

The fact is that Labour was split on Lords reform. Managing to derail the process helped to avoid them looking that way. It became increasingly clear that the Tories were even more split (despite promising Lords reform in their manifesto) and that Labour would have to carry the government through the entire process, at every stage. It also undermined the Lib Dems and got them a policy concession they wanted. Under those circumstances, even the most strident supporter of reform would struggle to not make the decision that Ed Miliband did.

If the Lib Dems had not made support for boundary changes a precondition, has said that that deal was done and that they would stand by their coalition partners, there would in all likelihood have been fewer Tory rebellions over the issue and Labour would have had less of an incentive to dissemble. Of course, it would have looked weak, and would have meant that the Lib Dems would be facing even more losses in the next election. Given the choice between party and principle, they chose party. I don’t especially blame them for that either, but please spare me the self-righteous indignation over how Labour behaved in response.

That was all two years ago. What concerns me about the Lib Dems now is that an awful lot of them seem to believe their own hype. I’ve read an awful lot of tweets this morning from Lib Dems denouncing Labour betrayal on this issue. Yet the fact is that if you want House of Lords reform then your best bet is Labour winning at least a plurality in the next general election. It certainly won’t happen if the Tories win. And it certainly won’t happen if what remains of the Lib Dems in the Commons in 2015 sit around whingeing about missed opportunities.

Making Lords reform a partisan issue in the way that the front bench Lib Dem team seemed determined to make it won’t actually make it happen. Once again, they seem to be putting party ahead of principle – and on this occasion I’m a lot less sympathetic.

Is thwarting the will of the Lords really “unconstitutional”?

The Times poll today showing that the majority of peers are not only opposed to Lords reform but feel it would be “unconstitutional” to proceed without their blessing begs an important question: in a country without a codified constitution, what on earth is “constitutional” anyway?

Where the peers may have a point is that when the courts looked at the Parliament Act’s applicability with regard to the Hunting Act in 2005, there was a suggestion by some Law Lords that judges might be able to strike down attempts to use the Parliament Act to affect constitutional changes. Of course, this has not been tested, but it is at least contestable and it is just conceivable that the Law Lords might come down hard on any attempt to use the Parliament Act to force through an elected second chamber.

Yet while the use of the Parliament Act may be considered illegal, it could equally be argued that for the Lords to block reform, and thus make the use of the Parliament Act necessary, could only be done by steamrollering over the conventions which have allowed the House of Lords to stay its execution for the past 60 years. The Salisbury Convention was introduced specifically to prevent the unelected Lords thwarting the will of an elected Commons. Its precise formulation has come under strain with the advent of governments being formed with just 36% of the vote – and let’s not get started on how it should work with a coalition government. Despite this, nobody has contested the basic underlying principle at its core: public will, as expressed through the ballot box via the party system and the House of Commons, should always win out.

It is with this in mind that I feel the need to point out that all three major parties fought the last election with a specific manifesto commitment to reform the Lords. It would be an absolute scandal for the Lords to presume to exercise a veto, akin to the worst examples of clericocracy that we are all too ready to condemn when it happens in Iran. By all means let’s see the Lords doing their job and scrutinising the legislation with a fine tooth comb, but blocking it outright should be considered out of bounds.

All three party leaders should come down on this, and hard. Anyone else wondering why they haven’t done so already?

UPDATE: I’ve written a piece on Comment is Free, building on this.

You might also be interested in Mark Pack’s article about dissolution honours on Left Foot Forward.

And finally, I should have urged everyone to sign Unlock Democracy’s petition on reforming the House of Lords.

Confused debate over superinjunctions

I can’t help but smell a rat over the current media furore over superinjunctions.

It started out perfectly honourably, with a genuine freedom of speech issue surrounding Trafigura. Clearly a company which had been caught dumping toxic waste should not be able to hide behind a legal nicety reserved solely for the wealthy. But what was clearly a debate about the right to report issues which are clearly in the public interest has descended into a terribly English furore about where footballers stick their winkies.

Is an important principle of law really being defended right now, or is this little more than a distraction. After all, it can’t be a coincidence that this story has arisen as the scandal surrounding the News of the World phone-hacking scandal appears to get worse and worse. We are being invited to consider the death of privacy – and that such an occurrence is no bad thing – precisely at a time when one of the world’s top media corporations is under pressure for steamrollering over people’s personal rights.

Of course new technology presents us with new challenges in defending privacy, and of course we need to defend freedom of speech. Refusing to have a privacy law helps us to achieve neither. It isn’t that I think Judges are fools or terrible people; I just think the basic principles should be established in as democratic a manner as possible. It is surely pure laziness to claim that any attempt to legislate will inexorably lead to a French system in which sex pests are free to aspire to the highest positions of power, knowing that they can avoid even the slightest whiff of scandal (so long as they stay within France’s borders – should have thought of that Dominique).

However imperfect our Parliament is, I would still trust it above and beyond the lone instincts of Justice Eady. Let’s by all means tear up superinjunctions, but in the process let’s not create such a free-for-all that everyone is left at the mercy of the Daily Mail.

Electoral Mythbusting 2: spotlight on Labour and boundary changes

The proposal to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system to the Alternative Vote is Labour’s policy, so you would have thought they’d be delighted that the coalition government is going ahead with it, wouldn’t you? The problem is, a) Labour’s commitment to the policy is at least partly tactical (designed to appeal to Lib Dem voters – and Lib Dem MPs in the event of a hung parliament. Ironically, the effect was to make a Lib-Tory coalition more likely) and b) the Tories are insisting on implementing the policy alongside their own reforms of reducing the number of MPs by 10% and “equalising” constituency boundaries in order to remove a perceived bias in favour of the Labour Party. Labour politicians are up in arms at this and are threatening to bring down the whole bill.

To those of us outside the big two parties, this debate is somewhat baffling. They are throwing claims and counterclaims at each other regarding “gerrymandering” with seemingly no self-awareness at the fact that the current system (and even AV) gives both parties a tremendous inbuilt advantage that no other party enjoys. The sense of entitlement on both camps is eye-watering. But, that aside, can we legitimately accuse the Tory proposal as “gerrymandering”?

First of all, if you support single member constituencies, then you support in principle the idea that constituency boundaries should be drawn up in such a way that give different parties an advantage over another party. That is gerrymandering by another name. The reason for this is basic mathematics and gets to the heart of why no system which uses single member constituencies exclusively can be called proportional. It is best illustrated by what is known as the “gerrymander wheel“. The wheel shows how you can dramatically change the expected seat share each party gets simply by drawing the boundaries slightly differently. It is a problem with any electoral system with constituency boundaries, but the problem is greatly reduced even with two member constituencies with multi-member constituencies it rapidly becomes difficult to gerrymander.

But there is another factor, and this is something that both the Tories and Labour have got completely wrong. The fundamental problem the Tories have under FPTP is not the way the boundaries are drawn up but where their votes are. Simply put, Labour’s supporter base is spread across the country while the Tories tends to be concentrated in specific areas. This means that no matter how much you redraw the boundaries, Labour will still do better than the Tories nationwide while the Tories will always tend to have a concentration of safe seats (all things being equal).

The result is, any attempt to redraw the boundaries is unlikely to change very much, as two seperate academic studies have shown. So why is Labour getting so het up about it? Well, a factor is almost certainly the opposition party playing opposition games, but they do have one point: with millions of people not on the electoral register, some constituencies contain many more people than the election results suggest. This tends to be a particular problem in urban areas, which are typically more Labour than Tory. It is a problem that Labour had 13 years to sort out and refused to, so it would be nice if we heard a little more humility about it, but that isn’t the fault of the people affected, and I would agree that this should be taken into account.

What this can’t be used as however, is an excuse to not hold a boundary review, or an argument against equalisation. It certainly wasn’t during the two boundary reviews conducted under Labour and we certainly should not assume that those “missing” voters would all vote Labour given half a chance, no matter how great Labour’s capacity for self-delusion might be. With a census due to take place next year, this is in fact a good time to conduct a boundary review taking this fresh data into consideration. The Electoral Commission are already in the process of studying how complete and accurate registers are (pdf), and so long as the Boundary Commission are required to take this into consideration (in a transparent way), I can see no reason not to proceed at this point. The Electoral Reform Society have suggested that it might even be slightly beneficial to Labour; so be it. I suspect these details will all get thrashed out in committee in any case.

But there are two other objections to this agenda which are also being bandied about. One is that the combined effect of “reduction and equalise” will be to weaken the constituency link by ending the practice of having constituencies reflect local communities. The other is that reducing the number of MPs is itself undemocratic and bad for Parliament.

Superficially, there seems to be some truth to the first argument, which does make a bit of a nonsense out of the Tories’ claim to be the great defenders of the single member constituency link. How can you argue for that in principle, while reducing the degree to which constituencies reflect communities? And of course, I should include my own disclaimer that as far as I am concerned, anything that weakens the single member constituency link and results in MPs doing their job as legislators instead of their phoney job as social workers, is an entirely good thing. Bring it on.

But let’s not fool ourselves that the current system does a good job at reflecting communities; it doesn’t. That is due to three reasons: there is no fixed size for a “community”, the average constituency size doesn’t come close to reflecting the typical community and the concept of community itself is more mutable than it was, say, 100 years ago.

Here, for example are all the constituencies I have ever lived in:

  • Ravensbourne (Bromley), which incorportated the council wards of: Biggin Hill, Bromley Common & Keston, Darwin, Hayes, Martins Hill and Town, West Wickham North and West Wickham South. As a West Wickham resident, I considered my “area” to be West Wickham, Pickhurst, Hayes and Bromley. Biggin Hill might as well have been on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t even tell you where Martins Hill is.
  • Manchester Gorton (Manchester), which incorporated the council wards of: Fallowfield, Gorton North, Gorton South, Levenshulme, Longsight and Rusholme. As a student, I identified with the Oxford Road corridor, which incorporated much of Manchester Central. Much of Rusholme was, in fact, in Moss Side ward (Manchester Central). Much of Fallowfield was, in fact, in Withington (Manchester Withington). I very occasionally saw people in Levenshulme. Gorton was a completely different place, both ethnically and in terms of student population (I also lived in Central and Withington at various times, the same basic pattern applied).
  • Leeds Central (Leeds), which contained various wards in central Leeds, most of which had little in common other than that they were in Leeds itself. Leeds North West, where I was agent in 2001, was even more disparate. Shaped like an ice cream cone, it included the student-heavy Headingly at one end and the rural villages of Otley and Wharfedale at the other.
  • Warwick and Leamington (Warwickshire): To the extent that this constituencies contained two distinct communities, I suppose it counts. But even then, it wasn’t entirely cut and dried, as at the time it also included half of Kenilworth.
  • Hendon (Barnet), which currently includes Burnt Oak, Colindale, Edgware, Hale, Hendon, Mill Hill and West Hendon. Again, most of these places might as well not exist as far as I’m concerned. I live in Mill Hill and own a flat in Colindale. I’ve been to Edgware once in my life and Hendon not much more frequently. Finchley and Golders Green, where I lived shortly prior to now, was also two extremely distinct communities (if not more).

Looking at all these constituencies, a pattern quickly forms. The size of the constituency is such that as far as local identification is concerned they are neither fish nor fowl. You DO get identifiable communities at a council ward level, you can even make a case for a community at local authority level (although in both cases there will always be issues around boundaries), but constituencies are typically at such a size that they should be regarded, at best, as collections of multiple communties. Indeed, within London the boundaries have got even stranger since this election, with numberous constituencies crossing local authority boundaries (I am technically a member of Lewisham and Beckenham North Liberal Democrats for example, and Hampstead and Kilburn is an aggregate of Brent and Camden wards).

Reduction and equalisation won’t change that. The tighter equalisation rules might, around the edges, cause a few more odd boundaries through the middle of towns and villages, but for the vast majority of constituents, their constituency will be the same impersonal lump it was before the change. Equally, there will no doubt be some areas that become more coherent as a result of the boundary changes. One of the advantages of STV is that by creating larger multi-member constituencies, each one would conceivably represent a more meaningful piece of geography such as a county or a borough, but that is another matter.

Of course there is also the fact that people’s sense of place differs wildly depending on their lifestyle. As a public transport user for example, my bit of North London is effectively Mill Hill, Finchley and, to a lesser extent, Golders Green – i.e. the bits which I go to frequently because of my daily commute. I can’t even get to Hendon directly by bus or tube. If I used a car, I would no doubt have a different perspective. “My” Manchester involved both sides of Oxford Road, from the centre out to Fallowfield – but that was because I was a student. As we all become more mobile and more culturally diverse, talk of constituencies needing to represent distinct communities becomes increasingly bunk. So to get precious about the constituency sizes we have now is frankly silly.

The final objection is that reducing the number of MPs would be bad for democracy, yet the House of Commons is unusually large by international standards. ERS have included a comparative table here. The conclusion they invite the reader to draw is that the UK doesn’t have a particularly oversized Parliament after all, but I’m not convinced. After all, the statistics do indeed show that the UK House of Commons is large by global standards.

For starters, the assertion that only countries with federal systems should have smaller Parliaments is a little dubious. Certainly, countries with legislative chambers at a sub-national level have fewer things for their legislatures to do, but it doesn’t follow that you therefore need more bodies to do it. MPs all have to vote on the same number of laws, no matter how many MPs there happen to be. And while, conceivably, more MPs means more people who can share the load in terms of scrutiny, in practice it doesn’t work that way.

For example, the Commons Select Committees have just been reduced in size from 18 members down to 11. Far from being about reducing the amount of scrutiny, this is actually about ensuring there is more. In the past, each select committee effectively consisted of a hardcore and a group of malleable part timers who would contribute very little and were more susceptable to influence from whips. Smaller committees are generally regarded as better in terms of building a consensus and doing the hard work.

I don’t have statistics, and would love to see them, but I would guess that public bill committees tend to be dominated by a bunch of usual suspects. Similarly, you either have an MP who reads things like papers on statutory instruments, or you don’t. It isn’t the number of MPs, or even the number of laws particularly that is the issue here, but the culture in Parliament that seems to reward citizens advice over and above legislating.

Either way, a reduction of MP numbers by 10% is unlikely to have much impact. A bigger reduction might do, for the simple fact that we have such a large payroll vote with our current system of government. But 10% is unlikely to have that much of an impact, and we should be reducing the payroll vote (if not seperating the legislature from the executive altogether) in any case. Another useful thing would be to increase the amount of research staff each party is entitled to employ, which would arguably do a far better job at ensuring there is more scrutiny than a handful of extra MPs at £100,000+ a throw.

Ultimately then, neither the “reduction” or the “equalise” part of these reforms are likely to make much of a difference, either to the political breakdown in the House of Commons or the nature of MP’s roles. Reforming the voting system to AV may be a modest reform, but compared to either of these tiny steps it is revolutionary. They are certainly a price I have no problem paying in order to keep the Tories happy (although it looks as if some backbenchers are determined to scupper the referendum bill in any case). What I find baffling is why Labour are claiming that some kind of massive point of principle is under threat here, when for the most part they are just totemic changes. Watching both parties scrap in this debate looks remarkably similar to two bald men fighting over a comb.

EXPOSED: The Tories’ secret plan to prevent hung parliaments

Much has been made in the media this weekend of the Tories’ secret plan to increase VAT immediately after the election, if they win outright on Thursday. But it is becoming increasingly clear that they have another secret plan they aren’t telling anybody about: a plan to prevent future hung parliaments.

Right or wrong (and all the facts show they are dangerously wrong), one thing that the Tories have made perfectly clear in this election is that they are fundamentally opposed to having to share power with anyone. This of course makes a complete nonsense of the title of their manifesto (“an invitation to join the government of Britain” – have you noticed they are now emphasing not our place in government, but our status as mere contractors with government?), but that’s by the by.

Howver, there are two problems they have. The first one is the dirty little secret that WE ALREADY HAVE a hung parliament, and have had one for years. The House of Lords has been hung since the early noughties. Tory policy is now to “seek consensus” on creating a “substantially elected House of Lords” (presumably under their policy the appointed element will be to ensure the House has a single party majority but they are keeping conspicuously quiet about that) but since they are the only ones who disagree with the consensus that it should be elected using a proportional system, that won’t be achieved any time soon. It is well understood that if the Tories win an outright majority on Thursday, then Lords reform is dead as an issue for the next five years.

That leaves “Dave” with the power to appoint life peers on a whim, and the commitment to prevent hung parliaments. The current House of Lords has 704 members, 188 of whom are Tories. To form a majority and prevent a hung parliament, Cameron’s oft-repeated aim, he will need to appoint at least 300 Tories to the red leather benches.

Where will these 300 people come from? One can assume that a large tranche will be failed Commons candidates, meaning that even if you manage to vote down your local Tory candidate, they will be sitting in the legislature in a matter of weeks. We can also safely assume that they will come from the ranks of the businessmen and millionaires who have been bankrolling their campaign, including this delightful bunch of evangelical Christians.

This hasn’t come from nowhere. Back in October, the Times was openly speculating on the Tories appointing dozens of peers if they won the election before, presumably, such talk got stamped on by Andy Coulson and his close links with News International. But it is clear from the last few weeks that the Tories secret plan goes much, much further than even this.

But believe it or not, it actually gets worse. The biggest problem with the Tories’ war against hung parliaments is that with each election the chances of one forming increases as the country embraces multi-party politics. In 1951, 96.6% of voters supported one of the two main parties. In 2005, that figure was as low as 67.6%. The thing about FPTP is that if the vote share is evenly spread amongst 3 or 4 parties it ceases to return mostly single party majorities and starts becoming scarily random. Fundamentally, we remain stuck in hung parliament territory.

The Tories will be looking at Canada at the moment, which has had three hung parliaments in six years, and realising that even if that doesn’t happen here in 2010, we are heading in that direction. To prevent this, Cameron cannot rely on argument alone, he will have to change the system itself.

That means adopting a similar system to the ones they operate in those great bastions of economic and political stability Greece and Italy whereby the party which wins the largest share of the vote is given a bonus number of seats to ensure that it almost always wins an outright majority. Those bonus MPs would have no constituency and would be only answerable to the party itself. This is what is known as “strong government”.

Think this is fantasy? The Tory rhetoric over the past couple of weeks makes it clear that they will do everything in their power to prevent hung parliaments and having to share power with anyone. Therefore it is inevitable that they will have to adopt both these measures. While I am sure they will claim they have “no plans” to do either of these things, that is what they said about raising VAT.

Fundamentally, can you believe a word any of them say? We need to prevent all this by denying them a victory on Thursday. The polls this Sunday are quite consistent: while Lib Dem support is wavering slightly, we are still in a position to win the biggest share of the vote if the young people who have flocked to us over the last few days turn out rather than staying at home. They aren’t switching to either Labour or the Tories. So let’s get out there and enthuse them.

Polly Toynbee: you can stick your clothespeg

Think this election is different? Think the polls are showing this election has become a three way race and that the Lib Dems are insurgent? Allow Polly Toynbee to disabuse you.

For Polly, we are in a political Groundhog Day. 2010 is the new 2005. You remember 2005, don’t you? While Labour’s illegal Iraq invasion was at its height and its love affair with big business was at its most passionate, Polly Toynbee was telling everyone who would listen to stick clothespegs on their noses and vote Labour regardless. It would appear that Toynbee’s brief dalliance with David Owen in the Eighties has had the effect that, as a true prodigal daughter, she will always find a reason to back the Labour Party even though she can find precious little to agree with them on. Her argument is not so much “my party right or wrong” as “my party, wrong, wrong, wrong.”

The 2010 version of the clothespeg campaign appears to have taken this a step further. No longer interested in even attempting to defend Labour, the crux of her argument is rooted purely on the basis that 1) they aren’t the Tories and 2) voting Lib Dem is a wasted vote, all the time, always, regardless of what the polls say.

Here are four reasons why she is hopelessly, utterly wrong:

Firstly, there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that Lib Dem support still has not peaked in this election and might still get us into the 38-40% level of support needed to not only be the largest party but to form a majority. The Sun commissioned a poll by YouGov which showed that 49% of the public say they would vote Lib Dem if they thought we had a chance of winning outright, a finding which clearly terrified them and they promptly attempted to bury. Will that happen? I have to admit it is unlikely, but it does suggest there is all to play for. Toynbee quote Ben Page who promises to “run naked through the streets” if Nick Clegg were to win. Of course, what she doesn’t mention is that Page said this on 16 April when pollsters were just waking up to the Lib Dem surge in the polls. I have no doubt whatsoever that if Page had held his tongue for just 24 hours, he wouldn’t have made anything like such a confident prediction.

The polls over the last couple of days have the Conservatives creeping ahead and the Lib Dems being stuck at around the 29-30% mark. Could this mean the Lib Dems have peaked? Possibly (which would still make them the second party in terms of vote share; Labour are resolutely in third place now), possibly not. What we do know is that the BBC’s leaders’ debate this coming Thursday will be watched by a lot more people than the Sky News one and will thus be harder to spin by the rightwing press. We are also now much more alert to “happy accidents” such as pollsters starting their survey before Clegg has finished his closing speech. And we know that there is plenty of time for the Lib Dems to accrue more heavyweight support and momentum. I’m not predicting anything, merely pointing out the futility of writing the party off at this stage.

Secondly, Polly is simply wrong to assert that if the Tories win the plurality in terms of both seats and votes, they will have “won” the election. They would certainly have won the right to try and form a government, as Nick Clegg has said, but that is where our obligation to them ends. If the Lib Dems come second, then the party the Tories will have to persuade to help them out will be the third party, Labour. Don’t see it happening? Well, I wouldn’t run down the streets naked if it did, after all Blue-Red alliances are not exactly unheard of, but I would certainly consider it unlikely. And even a Tory minority government is not exactly a stunning victory, hamstrung as it would be by a combined Lib Dem-Labour majority.

Thirdly, as I argued on Comment is Free last weekend, a strong Lib Dem vote in this election is the best possible result if you want meaningful political reform. At this stage one has to question Polly’s motivations. Is she really the stalwart electoral reformer she claims to be? She brands Labour’s commitment for a referendum on AV as “pathetic” yet for the past five years been a part of that happy band of Labourites who have been working behind and in front of the scenes to make the mood music for AV as a stepping stone towards full STV compelling. So why complain now? And if it isn’t good enough, why support them now?

Back to my substantive point though, the best two arguments for PR are that a) FPTP produces undemocratic outcomes and b) FPTP doesn’t even produce the “strong” government (which is another way of saying weak parliament) its supporters insist is the only sensible way of carrying on. I can cite you examples worldwide why both are the case (FPTP using Canada has been stuck with a balanced parliament for six years and three consecutive elections now) but what will really motivate the British public is seeing how broken the system really is upfront. If Toynbee is interested in taking the case reform beyond the dinner table, then she should be urging people to vote Lib Dem in their droves right now.

All this will be undermined if people fall meekly in line by voting tactically. Not only does that exhaust the movement for reform of its momentum by boring people to death with psephological arguments about making the most of their vote in their constituency, it means that the Lib Dem vote share will inevitably go down and thus rob us of our strongest symbolic argument for reform. It isn’t just Toynbee making this mistake; Vote for a Change is ignoring the way the polls have shifted and adopting the tactic of trying to bore for electoral reform as well; these people badly need to get with the programme.

Thirdly, and most contentiously, I would argue that Clegg may yet emerge as the consensus choice for Prime Minister if the Lib Dems come first or second in terms of vote share, regardless of the number of MPs they get.

It isn’t that I think this is a shoo-in; it is just that I think that the three other options being talked about are highly problematic. A Cameron premiership would be dependent on Lib Dem or Labour support and an insurgent Clegg is unlikely to go along with that. If Labour come third in terms of vote share then it is surely game over for Brown; even he, surely, isn’t deluded enough to think he can hang on? But the “David Miliband” option isn’t exactly problem free either. There would still be the little matter of Labour losing the election, it would lead to the second consecutive Prime Minister with no personal mandate (after the first one had been rejected) and it would be problematic for Labour itself which is badly in need of a period of reflection and an open leadership election.

In comparison, Prime Minister Clegg doesn’t sound like too bad an option. It would be a vindication of the popular vote, it would allow Labour to go off and select a leader of their own and it has a certain constitutional neatness to it, with the Prime Minister of the day having to negotiate with parliament rather than take it for granted. It wouldn’t be an easy option by any stretch of the imagination – Clegg would be in for one hell of a rough ride. It might have to be part of a two- or three-way coalition and it would almost certainly not last longer than a couple of years, but two years of consensus politics guiding us out of the economic downturn and introducing a series of necessary political reforms (including a referendum on whether to replace the voting system with a proportional system) sounds quite enticing to me.

If there is a clearer and more productive way forward than that in the case of a hung parliament, I haven’t heard of it. So let’s stop all this talk about tactical voting and the risks of getting both Brown and Cameron if you vote Lib Dem. The only thing we know for sure in this election is that a vote for the Liberal Democrats will get you Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, more Lib Dem MPs and a stronger Lib Dem mandate for change. Everything else is just noise.

Finally, a short coda in response to David Miliband’s claim that the Lib Dems are anti-politics. If by “politics” he means establishment, then he is in fact correct. But the sort of system the Lib Dems are standing for in this election is a noisy, argumentative one in which ideas and policies are contested. Politics in other words. The one party rule that Miliband et al stand for is the very definition of anti-politics, where MPs are leant on to do what they’re told, where governments rely on huge majorities to force everything they want through, where oppositions can oppose without ever having to accept responsibility and where people like Messrs Miliband and Cameron merely have to wait in the wings until their inevitable rise as heirs apparent. If Miliband wants to defend the status quo, let him, but don’t let him get away with claiming it is “politics”.

What the Lib Dem policy on homeopathy is not

I got two rather bemusing emails today. The first was the party’s official line on what our reaction to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s report on homeopathy is. The second one was to inform me that, five hours later, it has been rescinded. I can see why.

The line (and this is not a secret – PPCs were expected to parrot this word for word to the public) was as follows:

As you may be aware, a recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recommended that the NHS stops paying for the provision of homeopathy. This is a decision which I fundamentally disagree with.

The NHS in England currently spends around £10 million every year on homeopathy, we believe that this should continue.

The Liberal Democrats support a review by NICE into the clinical effectiveness of all Complementary and Alternative (CAMs) therapies. It is important to note that there is extensive evidence on the value to patients of CAMs and extensive support amongst patients for their continued use on the NHS.

While the Science and Technology Committee were right to recognise there are some conditions for which CAMs are wholly inappropriate, the measured introduction of treatment with CAMs therapies at primary care level has the potential to reduce expensive secondary referrals and/or long term expensive drug therapy in a range of conditions. The value of CAMs treatments as secondary treatments also needs to be recognised.

The use of CAMs on the NHS must be subject to the same checks and balances as other NHS services, which is why we support the statutory regulation of CAMs practitioners by the Health Professionals Council. This is a vital step to ensure that standards are maintained and patients are protected from misleading claims by practitioners.

What I find really odd about this response is that the select committee were calling for “CAMs” to be subject to the same checks and balances as established medicine, and did support NICE investigating this – thus far NICE themselves have resisted this. The report notes “we cannot understand why the lack of an evidence base for homeopathy might prevent NICE evaluating it but not prevent the NHS spending money on it”.

Norman Lamb needs to make his mind up. He can’t call for established medicine and its alternative to be treated in the same way, and then protest when it is. If the evidence of the efficacy of “CAMs” (and note how this muddies the water by not talking about homeopathy in isolation – presumably he feels the point becomes stronger the more you dilute the argument) is so “extensive”, then where is it and why were Phil Willis et al unable to uncover it?

It all seems a bit rum. Hopefully they’ll have sorted out the party line by the end of the weekend. But what I really don’t understand is why it was, if Norman Lamb feels so strongly about this, he didn’t put out a press release earlier in the week and argue his case? He’d certainly have got a lot of media attention.

UPDATE: Norman Lamb has finally reissued his position on homeopathy, which can be read here.

Electoral reform and Parliament

At some point I need to write a comprehensive blog post about where I stand on AV. Today it not the time. But what I will say in response to last night’s vote in Parliament is that I find it appalling that MPs can be so complacent about how we actually count our votes whilst obsessive and dictatorial about as ephemeral an issue as when the votes are actually counted. It isn’t that I don’t think there is any merit in counting the ballot as quickly as possible – the more ballot boxes left overnight the more chance of ballot stuffing after all. But it just isn’t an issue worth getting exercised about.

In fairness to MPs, the blogosphere seems just as obsessed. Truly we are in the End Times.